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What Is a Sickle Cell Crisis?

Sickle cell disease changes the shape of a person's red blood cells. Instead of being flexible and disc-shaped, they are curved and stiff. These sickle-shaped blood cells don't flow through veins easily, so they can clog someone's small blood vessels. When this happens, the person has what doctors call a sickle cell crisis or "pain crisis."

Sickle cell crisis is an emergency. Because blood can't flow well to the body's organs (like the heart, lungs, and kidneys), these organs can't do their job. People who do not get medical treatment for a pain crisis may have long-term organ damage.

How to Recognize a Sickle Cell Crisis

The most common sign of a sickle cell crisis is extreme pain in the chest or stomach.

Some people also have:

  • trouble breathing
  • a fever of 101ºF (38.5ºC) or higher
  • pain that does not go away after taking medicine
  • extreme fatigue
  • severe headache or dizziness
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin) or extreme paleness
  • painful erection in males
  • sudden change of vision
  • seizures
  • weakness or inability to move any body parts
  • slurring of speech
  • loss of consciousness
  • numbing or tingling

See a doctor or call 911 right away if you have sickle cell disease and notice any of these things happening to you.

Preventing a Sickle Cell Crisis

You can't always avoid a sickle cell crisis. Sometimes the reasons they happen are out of your control, like when you're sick.

But you can lower your chances of having a crisis by doing these things:

  • Take all the medicines your doctor recommends.
  • Drink enough water — ask your doctor how much water you should be drinking based on your age and weight.
  • Avoid extreme temperatures — for example, dress warmly when going outdoors in winter after being in a warm house.
  • Limit activities that put stress on your body to use oxygen, such as intense weight training, mountain climbing, or scuba diving.
  • Wash your hands often or use a hand sanitizer (especially before eating), and stay away from sick people who are contagious.
  • Keep up to date on all vaccines — people with sickle cell disease have weakened immune systems, so getting shots and other immunizations helps protect you from serious illness.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: September 2015

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